New research finds that endurance athletes can easily lose their ability to handle pain.
Research backs what we like to believe about ourselves: Runners and other endurance athletes are tough cookies. A study from 2013, for example, found that triathletes have greater pain tolerance and ability to deal with pain than sedentary people.
Or at least they do when they’re not freaking out. A new study from the same researchers finds that triathletes become just as wimpy as anyone else when they’re under acute psychological stress. The findings, published in Medicine & Science in Exercise & Sports, add to the wisdom of lowering your stress level in the days and hours before an important race.
In the older and newer studies, researchers applied heat to subjects’ arms to measure pain threshold (when the heat become painful) and pain tolerance (how long the subjects could tolerate the heat once they found it painful). The key takeaways from the older study were that the triathletes had much greater pain tolerance, they described the pain as less intense, and they didn’t fear the pain as much as the sedentary subjects.
The new study involved only triathletes. These were serious endurance junkies, who trained an average of 16 hours a week and raced an average of 12 times a year. The triathletes told the researchers they regularly experienced moderate to high levels of physical and mental stress in training and competition. This time, the triathletes underwent the pain tests before and during a common psychological test designed to induce stress. The researchers gathered not only the triathletes’ subjective reports of stress, but also measured levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, in the triathletes’ saliva.
The psychological test, called the Montreal Imaging Stress Task, is dastardly by design. For eight minutes, the triathletes were presented with arithmetic tasks on a computer screen. As they completed each one, the screen told them whether they’d answered correctly, and provided an ongoing tally of how they were doing compared to the average performance on the task. Before the test, the triathletes were told that the average person got 80 to 90 per cent of the tasks right. That sounds stressful enough, but here’s the cruel twist: The test was programmed so that, regardless of one’s answers, the screen would always show a correct-response rate of 25 to 45 per cent. To make things worse, after the first test, the subjects were told they’d done poorly, and that they’d have to do the test over. After the second test, the subjects were again told they’d performed well below average.
The main finding: During acute psychological stress – in this case, seeing and being told they were failing at a pressure-packed task – the triathletes’ pain thresholds decreased significantly. In fact, their sensitivity to pain became essentially the same as that of the sedentary subjects in the earlier study. “Probably because pain inhibition of triathletes is greater at baseline, and perhaps reaches a ceiling effect, it is affected to a greater extent during stress than in non-athletes,” one of the researchers, Ruth Defrin, of Tel Aviv University, told Runner’s World in an email.
There was at least one important way in which the triathletes remained different, namely, their willingness to see the stressful situation through to the end. Despite the stress-induced increased sensitivity to pain caused by the tests, the researchers wrote, “triathletes do persevere in extreme efforts even if these involve considerable pain and stress. Whether it is a unique physical and/or psychological profile that enable this perseverance despite the involved stress is yet to be determined.”
Defrin said that her findings likely to apply to other endurance athletes such as runners. Interestingly, her team has tested the pain sensitivity of athletes in non-aerobic sports, such as power lifting, and found they score roughly the same as sedentary people.
So entering a race when under a lot of stress might not make you more likely to drop out. But doing so is likely to keep you from running up to your potential – what registers as painful will probably be at a lower intensity than when you’re mentally fresh.
Defrin said that any event marked by unpredictability and that’s not under your control could be stressful enough to have the effect found in her research. These events can include professional challenges soon before a race, such as a presentation before a tough audience, as well as mundane occurrences like getting stuck in traffic while driving to a race.
Although Defrin hasn’t tested specific ways to deal with such situations, she said “techniques aimed to reduce stress, such as mindfulness, cognitive behavioral therapy, and social support, might have the potential to improve pain modulation.” Another potential key for runners is a go-to pre-race routine that helps you relax.
And when in doubt, err on the side of leaving too early rather than too late for a race.